Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. It is sponsored by the American Library Association (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) and is typically held during the last week of September. The 2018 theme is “Banning Books Silences Stories. Speak Out!”
The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights to our Constitution is the basis for the ALA’s Freedom of Information and Freedom to Read statements. According to the ALA, intellectual freedom is the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction.
Banned Books Week is an opportunity to highlight the value of free and open access to information, and the freedom to seek and express ideas – regardless of how unorthodox, unpopular, or offensive those ideas are to some people. There has been a lot of media coverage recently regarding censorship on social media with accounts being banned on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The corporations behind those social media outlets are being pressured by users to ban certain types of content.
The same type of pressure is often leveraged against public and academic libraries. As a result, book titles may be challenged and/or banned within a library or school curriculum. Censors pressure libraries to suppress and remove from public access information they judge inappropriate or dangerous, so the rest of the community no longer has the right to make their own choice about what to read or view.
In 2017, 354 challenges were reported to the American Library Association, but the ALA estimates that around 90% of challenges go unreported. Last year’s Top 10 Most Challenged Books include:
For adults, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini was challenged and banned because it includes sexual violence and was thought to “lead to terrorism” and “promote Islam.” Another adult novel, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, was challenged and banned because of violence and its use of a racial slur.
For young adult readers, Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher was challenged and banned in multiple school districts because it discusses suicide. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie was challenged for acknowledging issues such as poverty, alcoholism, and sexuality in Native American populations. Another YA novel, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, was challenged and banned in school libraries because it was considered “pervasively vulgar” and because of drug use, profanity, and offensive language.
The middle-grade graphic novel Drama by Raina Telgemeier was challenged and banned in school libraries because it includes LGBT characters and was considered “confusing”. Another middle-grade novel, George by Alex Gino, was challenged and banned because it includes a transgender child. A middle-grade non-fiction book, Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg, was challenged because it addresses puberty and sex education, and is believed to lead children to “want to have sex or ask questions about sex.”
For younger children, the picture book And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson was challenged because it features a same-sex relationship between two penguins. Another picture book, I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, was challenged because it addresses gender identity.
Our public libraries have policies and procedures in place regarding the freedom to read, the freedom to view, and how we go about purchasing books, accepting book donations, and discarding books that are no longer circulating. We also have policies in place regarding the procedure for challenging a book – generally this requires the challenger to outline the objection in writing and submit it to the individual library for review.
For young readers, it is always the responsibility of the parent or caregiver to help children choose and check out age-appropriate books and materials. Children’s reading abilities and maturity levels vary greatly from one individual to the next, and libraries make an effort to group materials by age within the library. We usually separate picture books from early readers and chapter books. Many libraries have tween, teen, or young adult sections that allow for books and materials containing potentially sensitive content to be shelved in different areas based on reading and maturity levels. Although libraries may organize materials by a target age group, libraries do not hide or segregate books with sensitive or controversial subject matter.
In St. Lawrence County, our public libraries have access to all ten titles on last year’s Top Ten Most Challenged Books list. For anyone wishing to read a specific book, the titles and owning libraries may be found in the North Country Library System’s online catalog, or by inquiring at your local public library. Our county libraries also have most of the books from previous lists, many of which are considered classic novels or contemporary bestsellers. Be sure to stop by your local public library and check out what’s on the shelf!